Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Rev. Ryan Slifka
I remember back in University observing a panel discussion. This panel discussion was on climate change. Part of the panel involved a discussion about how in many, if not most industrialized countries, there wasn’t a lot of trouble getting people to believe in climate change. Let alone doing something about it. The United States on the other hand, went the conversation, was a country full of people hard to convince about the truth about it. And even harder to convince them to take action about it. Then the host of the panel asked why the panel members thought that was.
I don’t remember much about this discussion, other than this. There was a participant in this panel who simply said flat out: Christianity. Because so many Americans held fast to Christianity, she argued, they were less likely to care about the state of the environment. Christianity, she said, is a world-denying religion. She said the point of the Christian faith was to do good in order to escape the suffering, decay, and violence of the human flesh. To escape earthly existence, in order to spend a life of bliss with God and the angels in heaven. In fact, the pointed out, at the end of the Christian Bible—in the Book of Revelation—It says that God will destroy this old corrupted earth to make way for a new undefiled reality. One that is no longer imprisoned to decay. Christians either didn’t care about climate change, or didn’t believe in it, she argued. Because this earth is only a springboard, a jumping off place to eternity. A place other than this one. A place better than this one.
Now, regardless of the relative truth or untruth about climate change (this is not a sermon about climate change), I think there was something worth paying attention to in what she said. In how this woman described Christianity. Or at least some versions of it. How it’s often presented to us. How we often present it to others.
Now, this may seem like kind of an extreme example. But it’s how Christianity is so often presented to outsiders. It’s how non-church people see the faith. It’s how we often present it to ourselves. That it’s all about leaving this world for the next. That this world is a training ground or preparation for individual sounds on their way to another one. That it deals primarily with what happens to us when we die as individuals. And I’d hate to say it—if this is what Christian faith is all about, the woman on that panel was completely right. We can forget about forests. We can forget about oceans, we can forget about fisheries. We can even forget about our backyard gardens—everything good and beautiful in this world. We can just let them go. That if Christianity is all about going to another place when we die, then really, we shouldn’t worry at all about what happens to this one. If that’s the case, we can forget about all these things. As long as we don’t do anything too bad to anyone. Then we can rest easy.
If this is the story we tell. And if this is the story we believe, then we have nothing to worry about at all. If this is the story we tell. The problem with this story, though. Is that it’s not actually the right story. It’s not the Christian story. The reasons why we’ve grabbed on to this version of the story are a bit too complex for our time together this morning. But this story’s not the story the Bible tells, or the story that the longer Christian traditions bears witness to. Even if this is the way we’ve told this story at many times in our history. Because the way we’ve told this story is just too… small.
It’s just too small. Our story is so much bigger. Today’s scripture passages are from the beginning of the Bible—the book of Genesis. And the end of the Bible—the Revelation of John. The beginning of the story. And the end of the story. And like most stories, we can get a pretty good idea what the whole thing is about—the point of the story—from reading the beginning and the end.
The story begins like this: In the beginning, it says. In the beginning God creates the heavens and the earth (or began to create). You’ll notice in the short snippet that we read this morning that God creates day, God creates night. God calls them good. And this continues progressively through each stage of creation. All the way up to human beings. God creates, and calls each thing good. From the smallest bacteria in your sink, to the most majestic ancient cedar. The tiniest microbe to the biggest, ugliest bottom feeder skimming across the ocean floor. From sand on the beach to fiery atoms at the hearts of stars, to the broken hearts of suffering children. Not in anything any molecule ever did to deserve it. But because the whole universe is the object of the Creator’s infinite, unconditional, unending love. Each thing in its uniqueness. Not just humans. But all things.
There is an inherent goodness to the universe that penetrates into every corner. The great Reformer John Calvin called creation “the theatre of God’s Glory.” That we won’t know God, God’s beauty, God’s love, off-stage somewhere. But right here where our lives are playing out. “All things bright and beautiful,” as the old hymn goes. “All creatures great and small, All things wise and wonderful: The Lord God made them all.” All things. Human beings may be the climax, may be the pinnacle, may be the jewel in creation’s crown. But all things are objects of the Creators love. Loved intrinsically for what they are.
If you get right down in to the text, you realize that the idea of a “world-denying faith” is foreign to the Biblical story. The world, matter, existence. This—all of this—Is all the good stuff, because it’s God’s stuff.
It’s right there at the beginning. My body, your body. Creation’s good. It’s good. But it’s unfinished. God’s not done yet. It gets even better.
Fast forward to Revelation. The story at the end. This ecstatic vision given to John of Patmos. The end of time, the fulfillment of the story. The heavenly city of Jerusalem, the dwelling place of God descends from the clouds, ready for a wedding. This is God setting up shop. God settling down for good. God making a home, not in heaven. But in the earth itself. Every tear wiped away. Every wrong righted. “See,” God says. “See—I’m making all things new. Trust me, it’s true.”
The story ends with God’s good creation. Creation’s itself, creation as a whole, the object of God’s everlasting love. God’s goal from the beginning is the reclamation, the redemption, and completion of this world, creation itself. So the story ends with a new heaven and a new earth, a renewed heaven and renewed earth. Heaven, God’s full presence, and earth—the cosmos, the universe, together, united at last. As the late theologian Dallas Willard once said, “it’s less about us helping people get in to heaven than it is heaven getting in to us.” Heaven, earth. In an everlasting embrace.
And for us, Jesus himself represents the beginning, the sneak preview of this final event. The completion of the work of Christ in his incarnation, in his becoming flesh. Creation healed, creation made whole. As it was always intended to be.
Our story isn’t about each of our individual souls leaving this world for another. No, that story isn’t our story. Because that story’s far too small. Our story is so much bigger, more profound, more beautiful. It’s about a whole New Creation, the invasion of earth by heaven. Transforming it. Making all things new.
What it means for us is this. Rather than seeing our lives as having individual destinies—we have a shared destiny. We will often use the phrase “God has a plan for my life.” Which is true, but only partially. It’s only partially true, because God has a plan for all creation, and it includes us. The plan isn’t just for us, it’s for all, and includes us. And we, we who have tasted, touched, come in to contact with the God we meet in Jesus Christ. We have been given a glimpse of this New Creation. This New Creation has touched down in our midst. And in joining Jesus on his path, we get to experience this New Creation, here and now.
The Christian life is lived between Creation and New Creation.[i] This is how we read the Bible from beginning to end, and how we understand our own stories. It includes the healing of our lives. It brings about the sanctification, the transformation of our souls. But it will also lead us to know something of God’s passionate love for all things. To see our kinship as fellow creatures with a common Creator and a shared destiny. To know Christ is to know him in his passion on the cross is not only suffering on the behalf of humanity. But for the sake of all things. And his resurrection is God’s power for life. The power at the heart of all things. For the redemption, the salvation of all things. One that’s pulling us towards this future, this end point. Something we can grab on to right here and now. Something we can grab on to for dear life. Something that can give us reason to hope. Even in hopeless times like ours.
Hope in hopeless times. A hope for all the earth. The Christian story, and living that story by The Way of Jesus Christ is not to escape from the world and its sufferings. Because that story is way too small. No, the gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ is our way into a love for the world and a kinship with all creatures. A love for all the world, for this world in its deepest, most profound way. A love that begins at creation, and ends with New Creation. It’s about as big as a story gets. It’s a story that begins with Creation, but ends with our redemption. With God making all things new.
“This is my Father's world.
O let me ne'er forget
that though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father's world:
why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King; let the heavens ring!
God reigns; let the earth be glad!”[ii]
It’s about as big as a story gets.
So let the earth be glad. And let all God’s people say “amen.” AMEN.
[i] I owe this way of reading the Bible to the great New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, especially his book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.
[ii] “This is My Father’s World,” a traditional hymn by Maltbie D. Babcock. The United Church hymnbook has a reworking called “This is God’s Wondrous World,” which helpfully makes some changes for inclusive language but leaves out the best part—New Creation!